Playing Games With Kamran Shirazi

by Thomas Beller


53 W 4th St, NY, NY1 10012

Neighborhood: West Village

Depending on how you look at it, Kamran Shirazi is famous in the world of chess for his flamboyant and innovative style of play, or for his amazing ability to lose, or perhaps both. He cobbles together a living by combining prize money from chess tournaments with fees from chess lessons, for which he charges eighty dollars an hour. If rent is particularly tight he stays up all night playing high stakes backgammon, occasionally with favorable results, and occasionally with unfavorable ones. Recently he has been talking of getting work as an actor, and in fact he can currently be seen in a major motion picture “Searching For Bobby Fisher,” playing himself. In his one scene, in which he has no lines, he sits in Washington Square Park playing high speed chess against a street hustler played by Laurence Fishbourn, and a murmur of recognition swells up among the onlookers. “It’s Kamran Shirazi! It’s Shirazi!” they whisper excitedly. A faint smile creeps across his lips, and then the scene is over and he is gone.

Shirazi is recognized as one of the best practitioners of Blitz (high speed chess) in the country, and he is the inventor of an several unorthodox opening sequences, including one that bears his name (“The Shirazi Indian”) of which he says, “It’s like finding a new island on the planet that’s not yet been discovered.”

He is also well known for his performance in the most recent U.S. Chess championships, held in Durango Wyoming, where the country’s top players played a total of fifteen matches against one another. Shirazi managed to lose thirteen matches; the remaining two ended in a draw.

Robert Byrne, a grand Master who has played against Bobby Fisher and who writes the chess column for the New York Times, said of Shirazi, “He can produce a novel and original way of looking at a position, and quite often he plays with a certain freshness, but his eccentricities work against him as well as for him. He can think of a new way of going wrong every time he sits down and plays a game. In one of the games at the recent U.S. Championship, he was doing a very good job of compensating for being a pawn down, but instead of getting a draw he somehow persuaded himself that he ought to be playing for a win, and he let his opponent out of an inconvenient situation and lost the game. You must make use of fantasy in chess if you want to be a great player, but you have to have control over it. You can’t be fantastic every time the itch gets to you.”

A vague note of exasperation pervades many comments about Shirazi. Fred Wilson, who operates the Fred Wilson chess Store on east 11th street, said, “When you play Kamran you expect two things: that the game will not be dull and that it will not end in a draw. He’s very unrealistic. It’s almost like a death wish.” An acquaintance of Shirazi’s said, somewhat wistfully, “you can not be a Kamran Shirazi fan and be a happy man.”

Shirazi was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1952 and lived there until 1979, when he left for America two weeks before the Iranian Revolution. Like so much about Shirazi, it was a bold and impulsive move, and not entirely logical. “It had nothing to do with the revolution,” he said recently. “It was just that I felt the world wasn’t mine.”

He is an extremely handsome man with haunted, angular features and pale delicate hands that can make the removal of a cigarette from its pack a dramatic event. He speaks softly, almost inaudibly, and favors neat suits that hang loosely over his thin frame. He frequently attends parties of one kind or another, where his two primary modes of social interaction seem to be attempting to seduce women or gazing about whatever room he’s in with a blank and observant expression. There is a Gatsby like aura around him, with a little Fred Astair mixed in.

He started playing tournaments late for a serious chess player, at fifteen, and it was around that time that he also became interested in Buddhism and other eastern philosophies.

“I see the connections in the world very clearly, ” he said recently. “That sort of feeling allows you not to feel intimidated, not by my opponents, not by the position on the board, not by the value of money. I do not calculate the loss of material when calculating the loss of a queen or a bishop. Even when there is a great deal of prize money at stake, I do not play cautiously. I understand how to play cautiously, but I choose not to.”

There is a maxim in chess that no player will ever admit to losing a match in good health, and when asked about the recent debacle at the U.S. Championships he says, “I was very restless at the time and I hadn’t been sleeping.” Asked what he had been doing, he replied, “Playing games. For me playing games is a form of partying.”

He speaks very highly of the value of chess, and frequently suggests that if the government were to train master chess players in fields like biology and medicine, they would be able to solve some of medicine’s most vexing problems. He is not immune to bouts of despair regarding his chosen profession, however. “Chess teaches you discipline and a way of seeing things in a coordinated pattern, but where can you use that discipline, that training? Chess teaches you not to make mistakes, but where is the ground on which not to make mistakes? Games exclude you from reality, on some level. Sometimes I feel like I’d like to be more part of the human adventure.” He pauses and then ads, “Sometimes I wish I had a job that didn’t always require perfection.”

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